"The desert snail at once awoke and found himself famous"
July 14, 2015 6:40 PM   Subscribe

In the mid-1800s, a snail spent years glued to a specimen card in the British Museum (now the Natural History Museum) before scientists realized it was still alive. What became of this snail? Ask Metafilter found out!

The essay "Seven-Year Sleepers" by Canadian writer Grant Allen describes this snail tale with anthropomorphic charm:
A certain famous historical desert snail was brought from Egypt to England as a conchological specimen in the year 1846. This particular mollusk (the only one of his race, probably, who ever attained to individual distinction), at the time of his arrival in London, was really alive and vigorous; but as the authorities of the British Museum, to whose tender care he was consigned, were ignorant of this important fact in his economy, he was gummed, mouth downward, on to a piece of cardboard, and duly labelled and dated with scientific accuracy, 'Helix desertorum, March 25, 1846.' Being a snail of a retiring and contented disposition, however, accustomed to long droughts and corresponding naps in his native sand-wastes, our mollusk thereupon simply curled himself up into the topmost recesses of his own whorls, and went placidly to sleep in perfect contentment for an unlimited period. Every conchologist takes it for granted, of course, that the shells which he receives from foreign parts have had their inhabitants properly boiled and extracted before being exported; for it is only the mere outer shell or skeleton of the animal that we preserve in our cabinets, leaving the actual flesh and muscles of the creature himself to wither unobserved upon its native shores. At the British Museum the desert snail might have snoozed away his inglorious existence unsuspected, but for a happy accident which attracted public attention to his remarkable case in a most extraordinary manner. On March 7, 1850, nearly four years later, it was casually observed that the card on which he reposed was slightly discoloured; and this discovery led to the suspicion that perhaps a living animal might be temporarily immured within that papery tomb. The Museum authorities accordingly ordered our friend a warm bath (who shall say hereafter that science is unfeeling!), upon which the grateful snail, waking up at the touch of the familiar moisture, put his head cautiously out of his shell, walked up to the top of the basin, and began to take a cursory survey of British institutions with his four eye-bearing tentacles. So strange a recovery from a long torpid condition, only equalled by that of the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus, deserved an exceptional amount of scientific recognition. The desert snail at once awoke and found himself famous. Nay, he actually sat for his portrait to an eminent zoological artist, Mr. [A.N.] Waterhouse; and a woodcut from the sketch thus procured, with a history of his life and adventures, may be found even unto this day in Dr. [S.P.] Woodward's 'Manual of the Mollusca,' to witness if I lie.
And sure enough, if you check A Manual of the Mollusca, there is Waterhouse's drawing of the snail! You can even download it as clip art. Here's the drawing's footnote: "Helix desertorum. Forskal. From a living specimen in the British Museum, March, 1850." And the text gives us this description:
The most interesting example of resuscitation occurred to a specimen of the Desert snail, from Egypt, chronicled by Dr [William] Baird. This individual was fixed to a tablet in the British Museum, on the 25th of March, 1846; and on March 7th, 1850, it was observed that he must have come out of his shell in the interval (as the paper had been discoloured, apparently in his attempt to get away); but finding escape impossible, had again retired, closing his aperture with the usual glistening film; this led to his immersion in tepid water, and marvellous recovery. He is now (March 13th, 1850) alive and flourishing, and has sat for his portrait.
Manual of the Mollusca refers to the snail's portrait-taker as the artist "Miss A. N. Waterhouse of Marlborough House." Whatever the origin of Miss Waterhouse, in March 1850, Marlborough House would have been standing "vacant [after] the unfortunate death of the late Queen Dowager" in 1849. But there seem to have been artists attached to Marlborough already; by at least August 1850 it was being used as an art display gallery, and by 1853 Marlborough was in use as the National Art Training School, later the Royal College of Art.

And that was most of the information about the snail that I could find on my own. So I turned to the expertise of Ask Metafilter!

You should go read every snail-history link in those comments, because they are fascinating. But I transcribed this particular report on the snail's fate from Excelsior by James Hamilton:
In March 1846, a series of shells was presented to our national collection by Charles Lamb, Esq., from Egypt, Greece, &c. Amongst them were several specimens of an Egyptian species, the 'Snail of the Desert," the Helix desertorum of authors, and which is found in great abundance living in the dry and arid deserts of Egypt and Syria. These shells had been packed and carried through a considerable part of Europe before they found their way into the gallery of the Museum, where they were deposited and fixed with gum upon their tablets on the 25th of March. Immured in their prison they remained for four years, without giving any sign of vitality. At the end of that time, however, in the latter part of March 1850, it was observed that on the mouth of one specimen a fresh, thin, glassy covering (called by conchologists the epiphragm) had very recently been formed. The specimen was immediately detached, and immersed in tepid water. After the lapse of a period not exceeding ten minutes, the animal began to move, put forth its horns, and cautiously emerged from its shell. In a few minutes more it was walking along the surface of the basin in which it was placed. The last time it had exercised its locomotive faculty was in the sandy plains of Egypt, not far from the banks of the Nile. Now it awoke to find itself crawling on the surface of a delf basin in the heart of London! Great care was taken of this 'helix rediviva.' It was placed in a tall glass-jar, eighteen inches high, with considerable space to move about in, and supplied with food, which it ate readily, though in small quantities. Cabbage-leaves formed its favourite repast, and were preferred to lettuce or any other vegetable. In this tranquil state of existence it remained till March 1851, when it resumed its torpid condition, shut itself up in its shell, and took an eight months' nap, awaking once more on the 9th of November to eat cabbage-leaf and perambulate the circumference of its glassy prison. Though quite lively, it again became torpid on the 15th, as if conscious the season of the year was not propitious, and never afterwards emerged from its shell. It was found dead, and perfectly dried up, in March 1852. Such was the end of the Egyptian snail, and it was with some feeling of regret that its death was recorded.
Thanks to AskMe, I contacted Jonathan Ablett of the Natural History Museum, where the pre-1881 natural history exhibits of the British Museum now reside. Mr. Ablett is the Curator of Non-Marine Mollusca and Cephalopoda at the Museum, and he was kind enough to answer several questions about the famous snail and to provide photographs of its shell from the Museum archives! They are posted here to Metafilter with his permission.

From Email #1:
I am so glad you enjoyed the tale of the desert snail, it really is a wonderful story and I often use it in my talks and lectures.
Yes we do have the specimen in the collection, when it died it was placed back on the display board where it was originally attached.
The specimen was registered as 1846.3.25.76 and the locality is recorded as Egypt, collected by C. Lamb Esq.
Here are the photographs!

From Email #2, after I asked if the long hibernation was standard for snails:
Most snails can hibernate in winter or aestivate in summer when conditions are unfavourable but I believe that the desert snails are one of the longest recorded cases of this that has been recorded.
Thank you very much, Metafilter and Mr. Ablett! If you have any additional interesting information about the legendary desert snail, please feel free to share!
posted by nicebookrack (55 comments total) 219 users marked this as a favorite
 
This looks absolutely fascinating. I'll check out the links in a moment, but my already-raised ears doubly pricked-up when you mentioned Grant Allen who will always be Olive Pratt Rayner to me.
posted by comealongpole at 6:50 PM on July 14, 2015 [1 favorite]


Steampunk Cephalopoda statis pod!
posted by clavdivs at 7:00 PM on July 14, 2015


Bah!!! Texas has this beat. There was, of course Old Rip.
These things matter after all.
posted by shockingbluamp at 7:01 PM on July 14, 2015 [2 favorites]


I love this post.
posted by bleep at 7:04 PM on July 14, 2015 [7 favorites]


Fantastic post, and an oddly moving story. How persistent is life in the most inimical circumstances!
posted by ottereroticist at 7:09 PM on July 14, 2015 [4 favorites]


[I want to acknowledge real quick that this is unusually personal framing for a post to the front page, and under other circumstances we'd ask the poster to rework it. But I'm so in love with this whole awesome snail situation that I'm letting my hair down and hereby giving nicebookrack a one-time pass to just do this up like this.]
posted by cortex at 7:20 PM on July 14, 2015 [124 favorites]


Well, obviously this place has just gone completely to hell since Matt left.
posted by phunniemee at 7:22 PM on July 14, 2015 [34 favorites]


Hooray! This has got to be a part of site history, now. Thanks for sharing nicebookrack, it's an incredible story.
posted by joseph conrad is fully awesome at 7:23 PM on July 14, 2015 [3 favorites]


Really love this post a lot!
posted by rtha at 7:27 PM on July 14, 2015 [2 favorites]


Very cool! I suppose it might be useful for a desert-based snail to hide away until water becomes available again.
posted by bismol at 7:27 PM on July 14, 2015


I loved the Ask question so much that I've been telling people about the amazing snail. Thanks for this post too, so fascinating! What a lovely story!
posted by gemmy at 7:28 PM on July 14, 2015 [2 favorites]


[Thanks, cortex, I promise I won't do it again! I considered formatting this as a normal, neutral post, but ultimately I didn't want to downplay the vital role of AskMe in collecting the research. It's not just mine, it's Metafilter's snail now!]
posted by nicebookrack at 7:28 PM on July 14, 2015 [22 favorites]


FAMOUS SNELS
posted by poffin boffin at 7:29 PM on July 14, 2015 [11 favorites]


How is this not a children's book?
posted by Atom Eyes at 7:30 PM on July 14, 2015 [9 favorites]


🐌 CHAOS REIGNS
posted by prize bull octorok at 7:34 PM on July 14, 2015 [23 favorites]


The fact that they retained and re-affixed the snail to the original display board is the most British thing I have read in years.
posted by Diablevert at 7:34 PM on July 14, 2015 [48 favorites]


I @ Mollusks
posted by argonauta at 7:37 PM on July 14, 2015 [4 favorites]


Yay! I enjoyed seeing this play out in AskMe and it makes a great FPP.
posted by MsMolly at 7:47 PM on July 14, 2015


First inline images, and now this?

THE END TIMES!

(seriously, though, how perfectly MeFi...)
posted by Devonian at 7:47 PM on July 14, 2015 [1 favorite]


'Curator of Non-Marine Mollusca and Cephalopoda' sounds like a character's title from A Series of Unfortunate Events. He is going to be either unhelpful, outright obstructive or murdered.
posted by BiggerJ at 7:52 PM on July 14, 2015 [6 favorites]


I am disappointed with ancient Egypt that they don't have a resurrecting snail-headed god.
posted by XMLicious at 7:59 PM on July 14, 2015 [2 favorites]


Murdered by the Curator of Marine Mollusca and Cephalopoda, obviously.
posted by Chrysostom at 7:59 PM on July 14, 2015 [3 favorites]


Sensnailtional!

OK, that was a reach, but this is a great post!
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 8:11 PM on July 14, 2015 [2 favorites]


Hooray! I love everything about this.
posted by ocherdraco at 8:20 PM on July 14, 2015


it's Metafilter's snail now!

MeFi's Own 🐌
posted by Greg_Ace at 8:22 PM on July 14, 2015 [16 favorites]


Perambulate like an Egyptian
posted by Kabanos at 9:02 PM on July 14, 2015 [5 favorites]


Yay! I've been hoping you'd make this post. Now going to read all the parts.
posted by gingerbeer at 9:12 PM on July 14, 2015


> MeFi's Own 🐌

Maybe we should put this account in some tepid water? Can the mods tell us if the surface it is affixed to is discolored?
posted by rtha at 9:16 PM on July 14, 2015 [20 favorites]


Hmm. The snail awoke in the spring, which makes sense given that snails tend to hibernate during the winter. But why did it stay dormant for several years? I wonder if the temperature or humidity appreciably changed in the museum just prior to March of 1850.
posted by bismol at 9:26 PM on July 14, 2015


Maybe we should put this account in some tepid water? Can the mods tell us if the surface it is affixed to is discolored?

If your screen appears to have faded to white, submerge your laptop to see if the dormant account awakes.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 9:43 PM on July 14, 2015 [1 favorite]


the dormant account awakes

...will be the first post on Cthulhu's Facebook wall.
posted by Greg_Ace at 9:49 PM on July 14, 2015 [13 favorites]


This is pretty much the most amazing post ever.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 10:04 PM on July 14, 2015


"This snail is alive!"
"Holy shit!"
"Wait, it looks like it wants to say something!"
"Hold it up so we can hear it!"
"I can't understand it. Kuth-hoo-loo? Cth-ul-hu? Cthulhu?"
"What does it mean?"
"I don't know."
"Hey, do you smell brimstone?"
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 10:11 PM on July 14, 2015 [11 favorites]


Wait a minute! I think I saw this exact same story with Gary on a Sponge Bob episode.....
posted by BigHeartedGuy at 10:25 PM on July 14, 2015


Whatever you do, do NOT go to it's IP address.
posted by wallabear at 10:27 PM on July 14, 2015 [2 favorites]


Jokes aside, awesome post.
posted by wallabear at 10:29 PM on July 14, 2015


Sometimes, a snail needs to rest up before it goes to battle with knights.
posted by horsewithnoname at 11:01 PM on July 14, 2015 [2 favorites]


This is an excellent - quintessential, even - MetiFilter birthday post, combining all the things I love about MetiFilter into one tiny little snail.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 11:20 PM on July 14, 2015 [5 favorites]


I wonder if the temperature or humidity appreciably changed in the museum just prior to March of 1850.
Temperature in 1850 (˚C) Jan 0.7 Feb 6.4 Mar 4.7
Rainfall in 1850 (mm) Jan 60.4 Feb 56.7 Mar 19.8
Frost occurred infrequently during February, relative to normal. At Greenwich, for example, the minimum temperature was just - 1.1˚C on the 14th; the following night the minimum was 10.7˚C - a remarkably high reading for February.
[source]
So yeah, wet and warming up.
posted by unliteral at 11:55 PM on July 14, 2015 [6 favorites]


So my new word of the day is 'aestivate'... which I have been know to do during particularly hot weather.
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 12:56 AM on July 15, 2015 [7 favorites]


Whatever you do, do NOT go to it's IP address.

Or maybe you should...
posted by ojemine at 3:04 AM on July 15, 2015


I love this snail.
posted by h00py at 3:21 AM on July 15, 2015


Could the snail-artist Miss A.N. Waterhouse be related to any of London's more famous contemporary Waterhouses? The Manual of the Mollusca preface thanks both Miss Waterhouse and a Mr. Waterhouse, who I assume was a scientist or someone else connected to the museum.

Perhaps "Mr. Waterhouse" was architect Alfred Waterhouse, who designed the Waterhouse building at the Natural History Museum. And the parents of painter John William Waterhouse, William and Isabella Waterhouse, were both painters alive during this time.

Or perhaps A. N. Waterhouse is from a completely different, yet still artistic, branch of the Waterhouse clan!

(To my shame, I keep misspelling Waterhouse as Woodhouse and have done so multiple times just writing this comment. Sorry!)
posted by nicebookrack at 7:50 AM on July 15, 2015 [2 favorites]


Yes! Lazarasnail update!
posted by deludingmyself at 8:07 AM on July 15, 2015


Perhaps the snail didn't like eating the cabbage? I can't imagine that they regularly find cabbage in Egypt...
posted by cobain_angel at 8:15 AM on July 15, 2015


when it died it was placed back on the display board where it was originally attached

There's a poignant, Flowers For Algernon, quality to that conclusion.
posted by yoink at 9:25 AM on July 15, 2015 [7 favorites]


This is so cool.
posted by insectosaurus at 12:30 PM on July 15, 2015


Whatever you do, do NOT go to it's IP address.

Or maybe you should...


This is probably way too late, but the "whois" for that IP is in Moscow. Caveat Inspectoris.
posted by Greg_Ace at 1:00 PM on July 15, 2015


Wait, how has The Whelk not chimed in? Is he OK? Does anyone know him in real life? Can you check to make sure he's not been tacked to a specimen board?
posted by Evilspork at 11:27 PM on July 15, 2015 [9 favorites]


The thing that delights me most about this snail's story is how clearly the scientists involved were delighted by it. The story essentially went viral among the snail-science publications of the day, in part due to scientific interest in snail hibernation, but largely because science writers were so amused by the idea of a little snail blithely snoozing away unnoticed while glued to a specimen card. And the plucky little survivor snail was rewarded with a rare happy ending, cared for with cabbage in the height of domestic snail luxury. "Who shall say hereafter that science is unfeeling!"
posted by nicebookrack at 7:10 AM on July 16, 2015 [7 favorites]


And the parents of painter John William Waterhouse, William and Isabella Waterhouse, were both painters alive during this time.

If John William Waterhouse had been around, it would have looked like this.
posted by Kabanos at 10:43 AM on July 16, 2015


Ooh, the Natural History Museum, London, has tweeted about us! Thanks again for the help, NHM!
posted by nicebookrack at 12:55 PM on July 16, 2015 [4 favorites]


This post has made my whole day!
posted by sarcasticah at 5:36 PM on July 16, 2015


Thanks for posting the followup to your AskMeFi!
posted by brianogilvie at 6:48 PM on July 19, 2015 [2 favorites]


This post also sort of spawned a new Metafilter Podcast episode / style / series.
posted by Pronoiac at 2:09 PM on July 25, 2015 [1 favorite]


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